By Joseph Forcherio, Editor-in-Chief, International Affairs Review - Web Edition

If the Trump administration’s new China strategy document is any indication, U.S.-Chinese relations could boil over sooner rather than later. On May 20, the White House released the “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” a document laying out a whole-of-government approach toward China. Ending an American policy of trying to integrate China into the liberal world order, President Trump declares that there is a “long-term strategic competition” between the United States and China. If there was any doubt before, this document sets the record straight: the United States recognizes the unprecedented threat China poses, and it will address it accordingly.

From Integration to Competition

Integration—not competition—was the United States’ first strategy to address the rise of China. The “responsible stakeholder” policy of the 2000s sought to redirect Chinese revisionist energies into assimilation with Western institutions like the World Bank, IMF, and World Trade Organization. The goal was not to compete with China but to integrate it into the liberal world order, hoping that it too would become a capitalist democracy.

As China has developed, it has begun to eschew integration for contestation. China now has the world’s second largest economy in terms of GDP, but in terms of GDP PPP—a measure some economists argue is a better measure to compare national economies—China surpassed the United States in 2016. China is translating this wealth into instruments of global power. In late 2019, Beijing commissioned its second aircraft carrier, complementing a PLA naval base in Djibouti. Its much-discussed Belt and Road Initiative, a massive international infrastructure development campaign, continues to create footholds of influence for Beijing across the Eurasian continent.

U.S. policymakers have taken note of these developments and have become increasingly critical of China, with Chinese treatment of protestors in Hong Kong and Uighurs in Xinjiang drawing bipartisan ire. President Trump, who has compared Chinese trade practices to rape, banned U.S. telecommunication companies from doing business with Huawei and ZTE, and launched a trade war with Beijing, has made his position on China very clear. Keith Alexander, former Director of the National Security Agency, included Chinese intellectual property theft in what he labeled “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.”

Washington has for years acknowledged China’s challenge to its preeminence, but this strategy outlines something different. The United States has thrown down the gauntlet. The United States has officially recognized it is in great power competition.

The New China Strategy

The administration’s strategy makes very clear its intentions: to adopt a “competitive approach to the PRC,” leveraging the entirety of the U.S. government to stop the Chinese challenge. It outlines two objectives: 1) equipping domestic institutions and international partners with the capacity to resist China, and 2) compelling China to end activities that threaten American and its allies’ interests. Three realms govern American-Sino competition: economics, values, and security. The strategy cites China’s WTO status as a “developing nation,” intellectual property theft, and unfair trade practices as key issues in bilateral economic tensions. It argues China undermines American democratic values by exporting its “techno-authoritarian model” to countries around the world. It states that the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) military exercises in the Indo-Pacific threatens U.S. allies’ sovereignty.

To combat these concerns, the strategy argues that the United States should adopt a whole-of-government approach, coordinating an array of agencies such as the Department of Justice, National Science and Technology Council, and Customs and Border Protection. Recognizing it is clashing with a peer competitor, Washington will organize across disparate institutions to mount a united front in a global struggle against Beijing.

The Future of United States Policy Towards China

The United States has irrevocably declared it will treat China as a threat, not a partner. The policy says that the United States will show “tolerance for greater bilateral friction.” What does that mean, especially in a post-COVID-19 world (the document does not even mention the virus)? Soon after the administration lambasted the World Health Organization for its treatment of China, it pulled out of the organization, surrendering another space to compete with Beijing. While this strategy declares that the United States has “significant interests” in Hong Kong, the State Department recently recommended ending its special diplomatic status with the United States. At the same time the president praises China’s COVID-19 response, he publicly releases a document declaring the country to be a competitor. 

This document, much less than a month old, is out-of-date, and amendments are desperately needed. The White House should task the National Security Council with expediting a revision of the new strategy. The strategy is an excellent declaration of U.S. policy, but it needs to be a living document that is flexible in its content to be taken seriously. Additionally, statements of strategy like these are incredibly important for their signaling significance. They clarify intentions. U.S. policymakers, foreign governments, scholars, and foreign policy watchers use them to make sense of what the United States is striving to achieve. Congress should commission similar strategies concerning countries of special strategic interests to the United States, including Russia, India, and the European Union. By clarifying its intentions, the United States can be a more effective policy actor.

The particulars of the post-pandemic order are still being ironed out, but the United States’ message is clear: China is a threat to its hegemony, and the U.S. government will resist in all manners possible.

Joseph Forcherio is Editor-in-Chief of the web edition of the International Affairs Review. His interests include great power competition, U.S. foreign policy, the post-Soviet space, and the former Yugoslavia.